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The pyrrhic battle for Bakhmut is a deadly flashpoint for Russia and Ukraine

March 21, 2023 at 3:45 pm

Ukrainian servicemen are seen along the frontline south of Bakhmut, Ukraine on March 20, 2023 [Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has witnessed battles and skirmishes with a high number of casualties. The defending side has often been favoured in these. However, the protagonists have also been locked in military action over relatively insignificant locations. A case in point is the city of Bakhmut, which has been bleeding both sides dry, and is turning into a humanitarian disaster. While Russia deploys its regular army and private military contractors to achieve its objectives, Ukraine has mobilised millions of citizens to repel the invading forces.

The city of Bakhmut had a pre-war population of around 70,000. It has witnessed heavy fighting, resulting in significant casualties for both Ukrainian and Russian forces since May last year. It has become one of the deadliest battlegrounds in what is the largest conventional war since World War Two. The fighting in Bakhmut has resulted in an estimated 70,000 casualties from both sides.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognised two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recognised two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Bakhmut’s symbolic value raises the question of whether any victory there would be considered pyrrhic; a victory that comes at such a high cost that it is almost as damaging as a defeat. The term comes from Ancient Greek King Pyrrhus who, after winning a costly battle against the Romans, reportedly said, “Another such victory, and I am undone.”

While overrunning Bakhmut would hold symbolic value for Russia, many experts question the rationale for losing thousands of men and costly ordnance. The Russians justify their strategy by referring to some key regional logistics and transport hubs. Bakhmut would give Russia control over important transportation routes and allow troops and supplies to be moved more easily. Moreover, the Kremlin wants a victory that can be used to boost the Russian public demoralised by setbacks in the past few months.

For the Ukrainians, although fighting to preserve Bakhmut comes at a high cost, it is explained by the need to mount do or die resistance over all Ukrainian territory. According to Volodymyr Nazarenko, the deputy commander of the National Guard of Ukraine, the task in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses as possible on the enemy. He emphasised that every metre of Ukrainian land comes at a high cost to the enemy.

Ukrainian determination to defend every inch of Bakhmut instead of retreating and establishing a new defensive line appears to be political rather than military. Time will tell whether the Sisyphean task of defending Bakhmut was justified. Ukrainian decision-makers hope to buy time and wear down Russian troops in Bakhmut, thwarting (or at least delaying) plans for a potential counter-offensive.

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Meanwhile, international experts are sceptical about both approaches. The prolonged battle for Bakhmut has taken a toll on the belligerents, preventing them from launching more consequential offensives. While Russia may achieve some short-term gains, such as seizing territory and weakening Ukraine’s military capabilities, the long-term consequences of such an action look counterproductive. A potential Russian occupation of Bakhmut will prolong the war with Ukraine. Russia would continue to face heavier significant diplomatic and economic repercussions from the international community, including further sanctions and more isolation. The conflict would also likely fuel instability and unrest within Russia and neighbouring countries, leading potentially to a broader regional crisis. Moreover, the expanding sanctions targeting the welfare of the Russian people will further reduce their quality of life. As a result, the number of Russians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries will continue to rise.

Furthermore, the costs of a prolonged conflict would be immense for Russia and Ukraine, with significant loss of life, damage to infrastructure and economic disruption. Innocent civilians, as usual in war, would bear the brunt of the violence, and any tactical win would be hollow and short-lived. Victory in wars is measured not only by winning battles but also by the losses incurred and the consequences that follow.

With rising casualty figures and the loss of vital equipment, neither side can triumph in Bakhmut. Only a commitment to diplomacy, negotiation and peace can provide a better outcome for all concerned.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.